With players set to report to Santa Clara on July 26 for the start of training camp, the San Francisco 49ers look the deepest they’ve been since the Jim Harbaugh era.
After a year marred by injuries, having depth at every position is key, but it will make for some difficult decisions when the time comes to cut down the 90-man roster.
Though most of the final roster appears to already be set, a few key position battles will take place between now and the 53-man roster cut deadline of Aug. 31.
No. 4: Backup Quarterback
Candidates: Nick Mullens, C.J. Beathard
Drafted in the third round in 2017 the hope for Beathard was that he could be groomed into either a capable starter or elite backup. He’s thrown 12 touchdowns to 13 interceptions and completed just 57% of his passes.
Mullens was undrafted and began his career on the practice squad, but made eight starts last season. He’s a known gym rat who listens to crowd noise on his headphones while studying the playbook.
Mullens doesn’t wow with elite skills, but his steady game and confidence should be enough to make the front office consider trading Beathard for a late-round pick.
Predicted Winner(s): Nick Mullens
No. 3: Final WR Spots
Candidates: Trent Taylor, Jordan Matthews, Kendrick Bourne, Richie James
With Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Marquise Goodwin set as the top four receivers and the 49ers not likely to carry more than six receivers, the back-end receiver competition should be fun to watch.
Kendrick Bourne led all 49ers wideouts in receiving last year with 487 yards and started eight games, but the 24-year-old will need to show improved hands to hold onto a roster spot this time around.
Trent Taylor and Richie James both profile as slippery slot receivers and above-average punt returners who are worthy of a roster spot, but it’s unlikely they both make the team do to their overlapping skill sets. With Taylor rounding back into form after a nagging back injury hampered him last season, he is a fan favorite to make the squad.
Jordan Matthews is a “big slot” who averaged 75 receptions over the first three seasons of his career before collecting only 45 across the previous two seasons. Signed to a one-year contract, Matthews is only guaranteed $300,000, making him an easy cut if San Francisco wishes to move on.
Predicted Winner(s): Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne
No. 2: Starting 1-Technique
Candidates: Arik Armstead, D.J. Jones, Solomon Thomas
As the 49ers transition into a Wide-9 scheme under new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, three of the four starting spots appear to be set.
Dee Ford and Nick Bosa will line up as bookend defensive ends with budding superstar Deforest Buckner manning the 3-Technique, or strong-side defensive tackle spot. That leaves a competition for the final starting spot after the team moved on from Earl Mitchell.
Thomas seems primed to finally break out in year three after the former No. 3 overall pick struggled with his mental health and focus last year. Thomas, though, is vastly undersized to play the 1-tech position, where teams need a big, hole-clogging run stuffer to man the A-gap. It is more likely that we’ll see Thomas in a reserve role lining up sometimes at defensive end and kicking inside to rush the passer on third down.
Armstead is five inches taller than Thomas at 6-foot-8, while weighing an equal 280 pounds. That might sound better in theory, but teams typically want their 1-tech to play with elite leverage, which isn’t a strength for Armstead.
That suggests that D.J. Jones, an under-the-radar, third-year player who quietly looked promising in four late-season starts in 2018, will seize the role. Jones weighs 324 pounds at just over 6-feet tall – ideal size for an early-down gap-plugger. Lance Zierlein compared Jones to Grady Jarrett coming out of college, and if he can even come close to that billing, the 49ers defensive line will be an elite force this season.
Predicted Winner(s): D.J. Jones
No. 1: Starting Cornerback
Candidates: Ahkello Witherspoon, Jason Verrett
Richard Sherman will lock down one side of the field for the 49ers, but who will man the other side?
With Tarvarius Moore moving back to his natural safety spot and Jimmie Ward out with a broken collarbone, the starting spot should come down to third-year man Ahkello Witherspoon and the oft-injured Jason Verrett.
Witherspoon followed a promising rookie season with an uneven sophomore campaign that led many to question the 49ers not drafting a cornerback early. At 6-foot-3 with long arms and speed, Witherspoon has always been considered a project. In year three, he won’t have as long of a leash to play through mistakes, meaning he must show improvement or end up on the bench.
Verrett is on the other end of the spectrum as an elite cornerback who plays bigger than his 5-foot-10 frame. The Bay Area native has played in only five games over the last three seasons, but when healthy has shown the ability to match up with elite receivers.
There’s no question that Verrett is one of the most talented cornerbacks in the game, routinely keeping his hips on a swivel, his feet moving quickly and his hands in the opposition’s chest.
If the 49ers can manage to keep Verrett healthy, he and Sherman will become a formidable duo.
Predicted Winner(s): Jason Verrett